March 11, 2020 / 11:59 AM / a month ago

UPDATE 2-Swiss step up measures to curb spread of virus epidemic

(Adds new measures adopted by canton of Ticino)

ZURICH, March 11 (Reuters) - Switzerland stepped up measures on Wednesday designed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus that has killed four people and sickened hundreds in the Alpine country and devastated neighbouring Italy.

The government said it was shuttering nine secondary border crossings with Italy and directing traffic to main routes while still letting workers get to their jobs.

The southern canton of Ticino, directly on the border with Italy, closed non-compulsory schools, movie houses, ski areas and nightclubs for the rest of the month, broadcaster SRF said.

Some local politicians in Ticino had called for measures like those in Austria, which has said it will deny entry to people coming from Italy.

Federal officials in Bern have been reluctant to order a shutdown, however, as more than 70,000 workers from northern Italy — lured by higher-paying jobs in southern Switzerland’s private banks, hospitals, construction sites, restaurants and factories — keep the region’s economy afloat.

“The border to Italy remains open for cross-border commuters” with work permits, said the Swiss government, whose border guards have been doing spot checks and urging travelers from Italy on non-essential trips to return home.

Italy has been at the epicentre of European coronavirus infections, with 10,000 cases and more than 600 deaths, and has imposed severe travel restrictions in an attempt to curb the spread.

Switzerland, with around 650 cases and three deaths, shares a nearly 750-km (466-mile) border with Italy, stretching from the rugged western Swiss Alps to Austria. Crossings include mountain passes, heavily trafficked highways and smaller roads. Thousands of people also ride trains back and forth daily.

Patrick Mathys, head of crisis management at the federal health agency, told a news conference in Bern it was possible the first wave of infections could pass by the end of May but this depended on many variables. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields, William Maclean)

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